Monday, March 28, 2016

Belgium, March 28th, 2016

On the evening of March 10th, I posted a tongue-in-cheek comment on my Facebook page about ‘writing about a plane crash while at an airport’. I was writing and drinking coffee late at night in the departure hall at Brussels International Airport. Less than two weeks later, the area I was sitting in was obliterated by two suicide bombers. The accident I was writing about is the following one:

The Tragedy of the Burning Argosy

On March 28th, 1933 (83 years ago today), an Imperial Airways Armstrong Whitworth Argosy II airliner named “City of Liverpool”, departed Brussels for a flight to London Croydon. This was the second and final leg of a flight originating in Cologne, Germany. Approximately 50 minutes later, 4000ft above the town of Klerken, witnesses on the ground described seeing flames underneath the fuselage, and an object (which turned out to be one of the passengers) was seen falling from the aircraft. Moments later an explosion was observed, followed by separation of the tail of the aircraft. The Argosy crashed nearly vertically into a field behind the Esen Castle just outside Diksmuide (Dixmude), Belgium. At 13:27 all fifteen on board were dead. At the time it was the deadliest accident in British civil aviation history. Its cause was never determined.

I first heard about this accident when I was researching Imperial Airways’s historic fleet for a graphic novel. Since I currently live less than 10 km from the crash site, I did some further investigating. Locally, this event is practically forgotten. This is hardly surprising, and in fact quite forgiveable. Diksmuide was on the front line of action during World War One, and was almost completely destroyed during the hostilities. The war left a most overwhelming imprint in this area, and consequently most historical research  centres around the period 1914-18. The following information is the result of around a year's worth of my own research.

This accident was a huge event at the time. Almost immediately following the crash, media speculation  was rampant, and all sorts of crazy stories did the rounds. The police and fire brigade arrived quickly, followed soon after by members of the press. All possible attempts were made to keep onlookers at a distance, but this did not prevent occasional souvenir hunting. Photography at the scene was forbidden by the police, but clever journalists chartered an aircraft and took aerial photos of the scene.

(Photo: The accident aircraft. G-AACI “City of Liverpool”)

(Photo: The crash site in 1933)

(Photo: The crash site today, taken from roughly the same spot)

Journalists speculated, and their suspicions quickly settled on the passenger who had fallen (or jumped) out of the burning aircraft. His name was Mr. Albert Voss, a dentist from Manchester, who the press suggested had reason to have set the airplane on fire in a spectacular murder-suicide. As a dealer in dental equipment, he would 'surely' have been able to gain access to numerous flammable substances (the substance the press focused on was Hecolite paste). The fact that burns were found on his hands did nothing to help. Mr. Voss was also labelled as a womaniser who had married a woman 25 years younger than him. He was painted as a gambler who lived large and squandered his money, putting him into perpetual debt. Allegedly, Scotland Yard had been on his trail for some time, and that of fellow passenger Louis Dearden, who was said to be his accomplice in a drug smuggling operation. Mr. Voss was himself said to have been a drug addict, having once ended up in the hospital after an overdose of aspirin. Scotland Yard was alarmed enough by these rumours to have his funeral halted in the middle of proceedings. They confiscated his body, and an autopsy was performed as part of a Coroner’s Inquest.

The crash was investigated by what is now the UK Civil Aviation Authority’s Air Accident Investigation Branch, or AAIB. The ink of the printed report has faded over the course of eight decades, but the eyes are drawn to this sobering information on the first page:

The aircraft, an Armstrong Whitworth ‘Argosy’ series II was constructed in 1929, and put into service in June of that year. Total flight time on the airframe at the time of the accident was 4,419 hours. It had flown 90 hours since its last complete overhaul, after which its Certificate of Airworthiness was renewed. Total Times on the individual engines had been recorded to the nearest half hour. The flight mechanic, Mr. W. R. Brown, had signed off the Daily Certificate of Safety that morning. The aircraft had been maintained and operated to the appropriate standard, and appears to have been in good working order. The pilot, Captain Lionel Leleu was very experienced, and had previously served in the RAF.

Weather conditions at the time of the accident were very good. According to the official report:

                “There was a clear sky, bright sunshine and very little wind. At ground level the wind was from the East and not more than 5 m.p.h.”

The report’s description of the accident mostly corroborates that of eye witness statements in the press. On Approaching Dixmude there was a sudden change in engine noise, followed by a considerable volume of whitish smoke coming from the fuselage.

                “A few moments later, while the aircraft was descending  rapidly but only at a moderately steep glide angle, apparently under control, flames appeared from, or around, the back half of the cabin and it became obvious that the machine was already ablaze”

                “An object, which was subsequently proved to be one of the passengers, was then seen to fall from the machine”

                “While it was still a considerable distance from the ground – possibly as much as 800 feet – the machine swung to the right, and almost at the same moment the rear portion of the fuselage broke off. The structural failure was accompanied by a loud report or what witnesses describe as an “explosion”. Numerous pieces of structure, articles of luggage and freight and also one passenger (a woman) were thrown from the machine when it broke in the air, and were subsequently found on the ground at various distances from the main wreckage”

                “The fire which raged on the ground, fed by petrol from the main tanks, completely gutted the main debris”

The field in which Mr. Voss fell is less than one kilometre away from where the Argosy impacted the ground. I would conservatively estimate, that the time that passed between his jump/fall and the crash was likely on the order of thirty seconds or less. Whatever the nature of these events, they happened fast. His body was examined. Again, from the official report:

                “The man’s clothes (no overcoat found on the body) bore little evidence of fire; his boots showed no signs whatever of heat. His jacket was only slightly singed at one or two places in front, but was smeared, particularly at the sleeves, with cellulose paint which appeared to have come from the walls or ceiling of the cabin. (Suggestive of rubbing contact with burning paintwork of the machine).”

The inquest, for its part, was met by the Jury with an open verdict. The autopsy and analysis of his organs produced zero evidence of him having been a drug addict. No evidence was found of Mr. Voss being mentally deranged, or responsible for the fire. The only chemicals found on him were the traces of cellulite paint from the aircraft. No evidence of Hecolite, or any other flammable substance was found.

The accident investigators did a thorough examination of the site and of the recovered wreckage. Recovery (they had been smashed 2 metres into the ground by the impact) and examination of the three engines was accomplished by technicians from Belgian airline SABENA. Analysis determined that the aircraft was essentially working fine up to the point of the outbreak of fire. There was however one area of possible cause in which no evidence could be recorded. The report states:

                “NOTE: It was not possible to arrive at any conclusion regarding the actual pipe-lines of either the fuel or lubricating systems, as very little of the “Petroflex” tubing had escaped total destruction by fire”

In the end:

                “On the evidence established it is not possible to arrive at any definite conclusion as to the origin and cause of the outbreak of fire in the aircraft.

Many lives were shattered by this accident. Despite being cleared of wrongdoing by the courts, the damage to Albert Voss’ reputation, and that of his family, had been done.

According to his 1912 English Naturalisation Certificate, Albert Voss was born on the 27th of November, 1863 in Zulpich, Prussia to David and Esther Voss. At the time of his naturalisation, he had been married to Minnie Voss (a Belgian National) for 22 years. He lived with her and their three children, Hugo, Alfred, and Hilda, on Bignor Street in Manchester. His 1911 Census record shows that they had a total of seven children together, four of who died. His profession was listed as: ‘Artificial Teeth Maker’. They must have had some means, as they employed a domestic servant.

In January of 1924 Minnie died at age 57. She was buried at the Burial Grounds of the Manchester Hebrew Congregation. In 1930 he married Jessie Cohen , age 35. In newspaper articles pertaining to the Coroner’s Inquest, Jessie’s two daughers Stella, and Winnie Cohen are mentioned. Jessie was severely affected by Albert’s death, and the drama from the press attention and Coroner’s Inquest. Albert had taken out a £500 life insurance policy for the day of the flight (something which in these days was not entirely unusual). It is at present unknown whether this was ever paid out, but if it was, it covered his outstanding debts and obligations only just. After all was paid, Minnie was left with just over £2 to her name. She sank into a deep depression and disappeared. Her body was recovered several months later from a canal. Her cause of death was an open verdict, but the media speculated suicide.

Even though the evidence points rather strongly to Mr. Voss being Jewish, there were press reports of him having made some very anti-semitic statements while conducting business on the continent. 
According to an article in the Nottingham Evening Post, April 4th, 1933, the manager of a Belgian dental agency in Brussels, with which Mr. Voss had dealings said:

                “Among the matters we talked of was the situation in Germany, and he struck me as being particularly anti-Jewish. I spent the whole of Monday with Mr. Voss and Mr. Dearden, and I accompanied them on Tuesday morning to the taxi which took them to the aerodrome.”

I strongly suspect that he may have made those statements to protect himself, and the future of his business dealings. We must look at Mr. Voss in the context of what was happening in 1933. The newspapers that reported about the air disaster were also full of updates about the Nazis and the increasing persecution of Jews in Germany. For example, some quotes from the Western Gazette of Friday, April 7th, 1933:




                “Jews fleeing from Germany into Belgium during the weekend are said to have been fired at by German Customs officials on the frontier. Many of the refugees, who carried lots of luggage and large amounts of money, tried to avoid customs by walking through woods not far from Verviers. A group of 23 were chased by German Customs officials, who fired many shots at them. The 23 were arrested by Belgian Gendarmerie, but released by order of the Surte Generale. They were allowed to stay in Belgium, as it was feared they would be massacred if ordered back. All trains entering Denmark from Germany were crowded with German Jews. Several hundred arrived in Copenhagen alone.”

Mr. Voss’ expensive business trips by air could easily be seen as extravagant, but I really think that by travelling across borders on a British airline, on a British passport, he effectively protected himself from the increased scrutiny he would have faced with a German accent in German border control zones. He would undoubtedly have had to pass through these, had he chosen the cheaper option of travel by land.

About Mr. Louis Dearden, his alleged accomplice in smuggling drugs, little information could be found. According to his 1911 Census record he was married with two kids, and his profession, like Mr. Voss is listed as ‘Artificial Teeth Maker’. There is another record that shows the dissolution of his business by mutual agreement with his business partner in that same year. It is not presently known whether he subsequently went into business with Mr. Voss. The evidence suggests that he and Louis Dearden were both  in the business of selling dental equipment, and that business trips abroad were hardly an unusual activity.

I think some ‘event’, not of Mr. Voss’ doing caused a fire aboard the Argosy and spread rapidly. He probably saw his life flash before his eyes, realised the situation was not survivable, and – as he was seated at the very back near the door - made the rather depressing decision that jumping out of the aircraft would give him a faster death than being roasted.

(Photo: The field in which Mr. Voss’s body fell)

Among the other passengers several notable stories stand out. Particularly tragic is that of Hugh McIlrath (age 22) and his sister Catherine (age 19) from Sydney, Australia. Catherine had attended Cheltenham Ladies College in Gloucestershire. From Hugh's old school:

                “It is with regret that we record the death of Hugh McIlrath, who, with his sister Catherine, was killed in an aeroplane accident near Dixmude, Belgium, on 28th March last. He had been escorting his sister on various trips to the Continent, and was then returning to London, whence they were both to sail for Australia.

                As Hugh had spent eight years at Shore, he was well known to the younger generation of Old Boys, with whom he was always popular. He was very likable, as he was clean and wholesome, with an instinctive knowledge of the right thing to do at all times. He was appreciated as well by the masters, who were often secretly amused by the bluff he failed to carry off when his work was unprepared, but no one could be angry with him for long, as he was such a good boy and took his defeat in such good part.”

                -From The Torch-Bearer, May 1st, 1933 (Publication of Sydney Church of England Grammar School)

Their father, William McIlrath came from humble beginnings, having been born in Banbridge, Down, Ireland, son of a farmer. He and several brothers emigrated to Australia where they became successful business owners and philanthropists. He and his wife funded a new hospital building that became known as the Hugh & Catherine McIlrath Centre for Pathology in 1935.

The woman who was thrown from the aircraft when the explosion took place was Valerie Forrester Thomson (age 28). Her body bore gruesome evidence of having been engulfed in fire above the waist.

Valerie was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in December of 1903. Her father, George Forrester Thomson worked in the insurance business there. After serving in World War One, Mr. Thomson remained on the Continent to help take care of the war graves. He died in Brussels in 1928, where he lived in a house on Avenue des Saisons in Ixelles with Valerie and her sister Mary. Valerie remained in Brussels until at least 1932 when she moved to Henley-on-Thames. She and her cousin took over the Elizabethan House on Hart street where they ran a successful tea room and boarding house. The building still exists, and now houses a Thai restaurant. 


                “The funeral of Miss Valerie Forrester Thomson, of Hart Street, Henley, took place very quietly at Henley Cemetery on Monday Morning. The service, which was of a very simple character and conducted by the Rector of Henley (Canon A. E. Dams, R. D.), was attended by members of the family and a few local residents. There was a wealth of floral tributes, among which was a wreath from Imperial Airways, Ltd., the company owning the ill-fated craft, “The City of Liverpool.” “

At 16, Lotte Voss was the youngest person aboard the flight. After the accident, the press immediately assumed she was Albert Voss’s niece, adding to the fury of the public that he would be a bad enough person to set fire to an aircraft that was carrying his own young relative. It quickly became apparent that the two were no relation of each other. Lotte was a student at Ivy House School in Wimbledon Commons, and was travelling alone from her home in Barmen near Cologne. The school’s principal, Mrs. Leeson, was waiting for her arrival at Croydon. The Yorkshire Post, April 5th, 1933 reports:

                “Fraulein Lotte Voss, the 19-year-old* Barmen girl, who was killed in the liner disaster, was buried at Barmen yesterday, says a Reuter message from Cologne. A pathetic figure at the gravesite was her father. In a death notice published in a Cologne newspaper Herr Voss described his daughter as “My dearest, my first, and last, my Lotte.”

(*all other sources report her age as 16 years of age)

The question now is, where do I go from here? In researching this accident for the past year, many questions have come up with every new piece of evidence I have found. From the official accident report, it is clear that everything was done to try and pinpoint a cause with the technology that was available to investigators of the 1930s. If this accident had happened this year, there would have been many more tools available for analysis, and I am convinced that a cause could probably be found. Is there still potential evidence in the grounds behind Esen Castle? And would any of it be in good enough state to lend itself to modern analysis techniques? I very recently contacted BAe Systems (the company into which Armstrong Whitworth was absorbed), and inquired about the possibility of acquiring copies of the Argosy’s blueprints and purchasing the Type Certificate.

I personally suspect that a bird strike may have ruptured multiple fuel lines (most of which were destroyed by the post-impact fire, as was noted in the report). For a cabin to turn into a raging inferno in less than a minute takes a highly combustible substance, and fuel mist spraying into the cabin is in my mind the most probable scenario. A build-up of fuel vapour is also a possible explanation for the explosion that blew the tail off the aircraft. Forensic analysis turned up no evidence of a bomb having exploded on board. To determine the plausibility of this, would require building at least a partial Argosy reconstruction and testing it under simulated conditions.

On a human level, what’s coming to the surface is a rather powerful insight into the devastation that comes with losing people near and dear to you in an air disaster. I focused on the five people with whom I felt the strongest connection in writing this article, but have uncovered background stories on most of the others. Their stories all deserve to be told in as much detail as can possibly be uncovered. I decided long ago that the full story of what happened to the “City of Liverpool” can only be told in a proper book and that is what I will strive to produce in the future. It has also been suggested by multiple friends and acquaintances that this tragic and mysterious story would lend itself well to a documentary or feature film. These are options which I will also keep open.


-First and foremost I would like to thank the staff of the UK Civil Aviation Authority – Air Accident Investigation Branch, who kindly declassified the original 1933 report and provided me with a high quality electronic copy, as well as a report for another (non-fatal) accident with an Argosy. The report was my primary source, against which all other information and evidence was weighed.
-Chris Vandewalle of the City Archive of Diksmuide, who provided me with copies of eye-witness accounts, and copies of the death certificates of the passengers and crew.
-Kelly Atkinson, for her help with research.
-Fiona Price, for her encouragement.
-Monica Goemaere, of B&B Esen Kasteelhoeve ( Valerie Forrester Thomson’s body fell on what is now her land. The B&B is wonderful and I can highly recommend it. When you visit, be sure to leave a flower or two in ‘the spot’.
-Dr. Pamela Greenwood, of the Wimbledon Museum
-Alexandra Cropper, of the Manchester Jewish Museum
-Anna Vuylsteke, the 100 year old nursing home resident who gave me her personal account.
-Mariette Broker, for her insights.
-Paul O’Shea, of the UK Metropolitan Police
-Peter Verplancke, of the Ijzertoren Museum
-Joost Freys
-Filip Boury, Archivist at Esen Castle
-Mr. A Gysel, local Diksmuide Historian
-Jim Davies & Keith Hayward of the British Airways Museum
-Anyone who I may have forgotten

-UK CAA-AAIB Report of the March 28, 1933 accident with Armstrong Whitworth Argosy-II G-AACI “City of Liverpool” at Dixmude, Belgium
-Stadsarchief Diksmuide - Documentatiedossier 'City of Liverpool'
-Stadsarchief Diksmuide - Gemeent archief Esen, burgerlijke stand, 1933
-Transcripts of local eye witness accounts
-Official death certificates of all 15 passengers and crew
-‘Contact’ article about the crash. Newsletter of the Belgian Aviation History Association. Author: Frans van Humbeek.
-The Evening News, March 29, 1933
-The Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday April 5th, 1933
-The Nottingham Evening Post, April 4th, 1933
-The Lancashire Daily Post, April 27th, 1933
-The Aberdeen Press & Journal, March 30th, 1933
-1911 Census records for Albert Voss
-UK Naturalisation record for Albert Voss, 1912
-Burial record for Minnie Voss, 1924
-Albert Voss Marriage Index (2nd marriage to Cohen)
-1911 Census record for Louis Dearden
-Business dissolution notice for Louis Dearden, 1911
-1911 Census record for George Forrester Thomson
-Two local newspaper clippings from Henley on Thames, supplied to me by the Henley Library
-The Sydney Morning Herald, March 30th, 1933
-The Torch-Bearer, May 1st 1933 issue:
-McIlrath, William (1876-1955) Australia Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, 1986
-Certified Extracts of Death, made to the Registrar General for England from the Undersigned British Consulate for the year ended 31st December, 1928 – Death with the district of the British Vice Consulate in Brussels.
-The Courier and Advertiser, April 5th, 1933
-The Evening Telegraph, April 27th, 1933
-The Citizen, April 4th, 1933
-The Evening Telegraph, August 23rd, 1933
-The Sunderland Echo, April 5th, 1933
-The Yorkshire Post, April 5th, 1933
-The Evening Telegraph, March 30th, 1933
-The Derby Evening Telegraph, March 30th, 1933
-The Lancashire Daily Post, March 29th, 1933
-The Evening News, March 29th, 1933
-The Western Gazette, April 7th, 1933

-The Western Gazette, March 30th, 1933

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Adventures in Flying Pt 3 - Beginnings

I don’t remember exactly when my interest in aviation started. It’s always just sort of been there. My earliest memory of being on an airplane, was young me tinkering with the emergency exit on a DC-9 on a KLM flight from Oslo to Amsterdam. At home, I regularly leafed through an English book titled ‘The Airline Pilot’, from the Macdonald First Library. It was published in 1970 and had pretty pictures of BOAC VC-10s, and of happy passengers being served lobster.

Growing up in early 80s Eindhoven, in the Netherlands was a mixed experience. There were plenty of books on airplanes at the library, and my family bought me plenty of my own. There was a military air base just a few kilometres away, and our house sat right in the approach path. In my mind I can still hear the sound of the Rolls-Royce Dart engines that powered the Fokker F-27 aircraft coming in to land. Pairs of F-104 Starfighters from Gilze-Rijen Air Base, and NF-5s from the local 314 Squadron screamed overhead almost daily. We would sometimes drive past the airport, where I was mesmerized by the preserved Supermarine Spifire that sat on a pedestal in front of the officer’s mess. 

The first airplane that really made a huge impression on me was a Singapore Airlines Boeing 707 at Amsterdam Schiphol airport. With its golden yellow and almost purple-blue cheat line on a crisp white background, it was a beautiful bird indeed. Like many boys before me, I decided that when I grew up I wanted to be a pilot. For years it was one of the few things I talked about. I desperately wanted to learn to fly, but the expense in Europe at the time (and still…) meant that this was not going to be a realistic possibility. I got pangs of jealousy whenever I saw a blip on the TV about some kid flying in a Piper or a Cessna in America. Over there this sort of thing looked like it was a lot more accessible.

When I was 10, I developed an interest in radio controlled planes. During my sister’s horse riding lessons in nearby Son, I usually wandered down to the RC club on the other side of the field. I learned quite a lot about those things there. Including that it was also not the cheapest of hobbies. I built a wooden glider model that I bought with saved up pocket money. It flew reasonably well in a straight line but that was about as exciting as it would get. It was designed for a winch launch to altitude, after which a timer (which I couldn’t afford) flipped up the horizontal stabilizer. The thing would then soar down and make a controlled landing. The second plane I built was a ‘Taxi 2’. It was a German Graupner kit that was loosely based on American Cessna aircraft. It was a motorized airplane, requiring a real engine and a very expensive radio control unit. This was completely beyond the limits of my pocket allowance. When we left the Netherlands to go to Singapore, I donated the airplane to my school where as far as I know, it hung from the ceiling for several years.

In the summer of 1987 I got my first taste of what it was like to fly a real airplane. I was staying with my aunt and uncle in the Belgian town of Grimbergen, while my parents were away on an English language course. This was about four months before we moved to Singapore. My uncle and I took a bike ride out to the local airport on a sunny afternoon where we spoke to a local pilot. My uncle talked him into taking us up in his Piper Cherokee in exchange for a modest sum of money, and a few beers (this was Belgium after all). We flew around the Brussels area for about half an hour, and he let me take the controls. I can assure you that for those few minutes 12 year old me was king of the world. That flight was quite possibly the best early birthday present ever.

In Singapore my interest continued. We knew several Dutch and Belgian expatriate pilots and engineers who worked for KLM and Singapore Airlines. I remember many talks about what it was like to fly 747s and the prototype Airbus A300. My school's library had several magazine subscriptions. One of these was for the magazine ‘Flight International’. I spent a lot of my lunch breaks reading back issues. Every month the latest issue would glow from its shelf like the holy grail. Competition for it was fierce. I once almost got into a physical altercation with another student over who got to read the ‘Farnborough Special’ first. I wanted to fly more than ever. Singapore had a local flying club, but just as in Europe it was a very expensive activity.

In the summer of 1994 I was in Ohio in the USA, studying music at Denison University. I had a part-time summer job taking care of the rats in the psychology building. It was my first ever paid job and it provided a small income. I was scheduled to attend a jazz course in early August at Manhattan School of Music in New York. I looked forward to meeting Gerry Mulligan, the legendary baritone sax player who I had listened to so much back in high school. But then something happened one afternoon at the University library. I was reading an issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology and was overcome by a sense of finality. I was having visions of flying and all my senses told me, that if was ever going to do this for real, now was the time to either shit or get off the pot. I called New York, cancelled the course, and got a refund. 

Two weeks later when the money was in the bank, I asked a fellow student to drive me to the local flying school in Newark. I purchased my flight theory books, and got an idea of what this project was going to cost. Even in 1994 dollars it was surprisingly affordable. The school’s primary trainer was a Cessna 152 which rented out at $37/hour including fuel. Dual instruction was an extra $20 on top of that, but it was still doable. Our music department secretary was kind enough to loan me her son’s old bicycle so I had some form of getting to and from the airport seven miles away. I had neither a car nor a driver’s license at the time.

My first ever flying lesson was  a totally different experience from what I had anticipated. I had seen many cockpit videos of airliners taking off, and I was assuming it would all be somewhat similar... My instructor did not want to use headphones, and we were basically shouting at each other over the deafening engine noise. The rudder pedals felt very loose, and I was winding all over the place while taxiing. My instructor was also a bit of a grump and I often wondered if he actually enjoyed flying. Take off felt completely out of control. There was no highly coordinated calling out of ‘100 knots’, ‘cross check’, ‘V1’, ‘rotate’, as I had observed in those videos. The machine shuddered as I advanced the throttle, and at around 60 knots it kind of merrily jumped into the air on its own.  It was a short flight, and a very sweaty one. Landing was a definite ‘arrival’, and marked my first experience of hearing the Cessna’s stall horn go off. The next few lessons were not much better and I started to wonder whether this had been such a good decision after all.

Some weeks later Oscar the Grouch got sick and I ended up flying with Steve, the head instructor and airport manager. This was a turning point. The other instructor was doing his job primarily to build flight time toward his Airline Transport license. Steve was a little older and had no ambition of ever flying jets. He was a flight instructor because he wanted to teach. During our first lesson together he taught me the technique for controlling those finicky rudder pedals. My taxiing at long last stopped resembling the sinuous crawl of a python. In the air, he showed me how to trim the airplane for level flight. It felt much more controlled all of a sudden, and I was gaining some semblance of confidence. At the end of the lesson, he insisted I fly with him from then on.  

I got very comfortable with that little Cessna and on one beautiful late afternoon in the fall of 1994, a little bit of magic happened. At the end of our lesson I taxied the Cessna up onto the ramp. To my surprise, Steve told me to keep the engine running and hand him my log book. He endorsed it for solo flight. It was getting late, but he told me if I hurried up, I’d have time for one lap around the circuit.

As he walked back into the small brick building that served as the flight school my heart rate went through the roof. I released the brakes and taxied back out. I did my engine run-up and methodically went through the departure checks. No approaching aircraft on base or final. On board alone for the very first time, I made the radio call:

                “Newark traffic, Cessna 53398 departing runway 27 staying in the pattern.”

I taxied onto the ‘piano keys’ and had a huge rush of excitement running through my veins. I put down 10 degrees of flaps, released the brakes, and gave it the beans. This was the single most exciting moment of my life up till then. The images of those cockpit videos came flooding back and that little Cessna might as well have been a commercial jet. Just for fun (it was my moment so I figured what the hell) at 55 knots I called out ‘V1, rotate’, and pulled back on the control column.
As the ground slowly dropped away, the blanket of pastel greens, yellows, and pinkish reds, so typical of a Midwestern autumn revealed itself below me. As I climbed out into the diminishing sunlight,  the prominent spire of Swasey chapel stood in the distance off to my right. There was my University campus. I retracted the flaps.

                “Newark traffic, Cessna 53398 turning crosswind 27.”

I banked the plane to the left and continued to climb to the traffic pattern altitude of 2000ft. My arms, hands and face were numb from the rush of adrenalin. The reality of what I was doing was very clear. I pulled back the black throttle knob and let the engine settle into cruise RPM. As I levelled off, I caught the grayish blue light shimmering off Buckeye lake, just a few miles in front. Several thousand feet above me a jet descended to the International airport at Columbus.

                “Newark traffic, Cessna 53398 turning downwind for 27.”

I made another 90 degree turn to the left and started thinking about my first solo landing. There was no wind that afternoon. The pleasant numbness and tingling in my arms and face continued. As I passed the end of the runway I pulled out the carburettor heat and reduced the throttle for approach. The airspeed bled off, and as the needle entered the ‘white arc’ I lowered the flaps back down to 10 degrees.

                “Newark traffic, Cessna 53398 turning base, runway 27.”

Continuing the gradual descent, I lowered the flaps to 20 degrees and looked to my right for any eight -engined monsters that might be trying to get to the airport before me.  Indian Mound Mall, the shopping center where I usually hung out on Friday nights came into view.

                “Newark traffic, Cessna 53398 turning final for runway 27.”

I banked to the left at thirty degrees, applying light left rudder to keep the turn coordinator ball in the center. It was drilled into my head that stalling on the turn to final approach was one of the most common fatal accidents for student pilots. In front of me was the 4000ft length of Runway 27. To my delight the PAPI lights showed two reds and two whites. I was on the correct glide slope for landing, and would theoretically miss the tall trees that were in the middle of the approach path. I lowered the flaps to 30 degrees and reduced my airspeed to 55 knots. When I crossed the runway threshold I pulled the throttle to idle and slowly lifted the nosewheel up by pulling back on the controls. 

The main gear touched down with a gentle screech. I lowered the nose and applied the toe brakes. I turned off onto the taxi way and grinned like a Cheshire Cat.

                “Newark traffic, Cessna 53398 clear of the active runway.”

I taxied onto the ramp and shut the aircraft down. As the whirring of the gyroscopic instruments died away, I opened the door and stepped out. The crisp evening air smelled alive, electrified almost. It was slightly chilly in my t shirt. As I placed the yellow wooden chocks around the wheels, and retrieved my flight bag from the cockpit I inhaled slow and deep. Completely in the moment with just one single thought: Holy crap I just soloed…

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

On Music and Mountaineering...

A long time ago when I was a music student, my flute teachers had the annoying habit of hammering the phrase "Practice your scales!" into my head. Even though I occasionally did practice them, being a teenager I often wondered "What's the point?" This existential dilemma finally got resolved early 2005 when I started following the Flute Chat board on Sir James Galway's Yahoo group. Sir James had posted some video excerpts from a master class in which he discussed, and...far more importantly...demonstrated why those annoying scales are so crucial. As it turns out, if you can play all of them (major, minor, diminished, whole tone and chromatic), at breakneck speed, accurately through the range of your instrument, for all intents and purposes there won't be a piece of classical music that you won't be able to play on sight. Additionally, your 'muscle memory' will be so well tuned to the appropriate note sequences, that memorizing entire pieces of music will be much easier too. Kind of like predictive text, but far less annoying... To make a long story short, I found a new determination to practice my scales and became a better flute player. Plus, I now had a way of actually showing my own flute students why I kept on torturing them with scale assignments.

Early this spring I was at the bouldering gym in Gent, Belgium where I have taken up my old climbing hobby again. At the gym, the practice 'routes' are color coded, and on this particular day I was proudly practicing an 'orange' route. I had climbed most of the gray routes in the gym and had just graduated from purple. I was feeling pretty good about it, and the memories of climbing to 6200m in the Himalayas as a 16 year old came flooding back. I got talking to an attractive female staff member who was installing a new orange route on one of the boulders. I asked her how difficult it was going to be. The answer was not what I expected. Orange routes are designed "to be easily tackled by a fifteen year old schoolgirl, wearing her book bag and tennis shoes...", she said with a smile.

My ego firmly reigned in, I once again thought back to that afternoon in Ladakh. Yes, I had climbed to 6200m, but it was on a relatively simple scree slope and involved absolutely no hand holds whatsoever. It was the sort of thing that wouldn't even require the climbing technique of a two year old escaping his play pen. The reality dawned on me. Regardless of my Himalayan ambitions, and hopes to one day climb the north face of the Eiger, when it comes to actual climbing technique...I am effectively a beginner. With fresh determination I watched numerous YouTube videos on basic climbing technique, and started memorizing the moves so I could try them out on my next gym visit. Terms like 'drop knee', 'heel hooking', 'open crimps', and 'closed crimps' were becoming part of my vocabulary. With my typical tendency to over think and over analyze things, I eventually arrived at a very nerdy theory...

What if all those individual moves and hand holds were like scales... Practicing each one diligently, and then combining them in the completion of a bouldering route (without falling off) could be the equivalent of mastering a short piece of music. Extrapolating that, mastering a large number of bouldering routes could then mean successfully climbing a much longer route...kind of like playing a long, difficult piece of classical music...kind of like climbing the north face of the Eiger... My thoughts raced to another YouTube video, the one that was my primary motivation to start climbing again after recovering from back surgery. I'm talking about the spectacular footage of Swiss climber Ueli Steck climbing that 1800m near vertical mountain face in a mind boggling 2 hours and 47 minutes... In flute terms, that's like playing Flight of the Bumblebee in 20 seconds flat...without a single mistake (a mistake on an Eigerwand solo climb means...well, let's not go there).

Thinking back to the hypothetical fifteen year old in tennis shoes, my ego took a coffee break once more. Even if I worked my tail off in the climbing gym and managed to get up to the impossible looking 'light green' routes, this was still climbing in a gym... The sort of climbing I have my eyes set on involves mixed terrain on natural rock, as well as snow and ice climbing, which is an entirely different beast altogether. And then there is another slight problem. I am definitely no Ueli Steck, and could never hope to have even a fraction of his natural climbing talent. In any case, my personal best on playing Flight of the Bumblebee on flute is 1 minute and 6 seconds...and it was full! of mistakes... On my next visit to the climbing gym I will be methodically practicing a few moves on an orange route, and will look very silly doing so (something for which I do have a good bit of talent). And perhaps in a month or two I'll be able to climb the whole route. In about a year, I will treat myself to a week in Grindelwald...and I shall wait for good weather with my guide. And I will have a go at the Eiger. However, I will plan on going up its west flank which is arguably more in my skill range. It was climbed in 1871 by a Swiss gentleman...and his pet dog.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Adventures in Flying Pt 2 – “Out of Fuel…”

“Superior pilots use their superior judgment to avoid situations requiring the use of their superior skills” – Anonymous

The following incident took place in the winter of 1996. I had gotten my pilot’s license the previous year and this provided opportunities for many impractical adventures. I needed to log precious flight time and just about anything became a valid excuse to go flying (see previous blog posts: ‘Why McDonalds Deserves a Michelin Star’ & ‘Destiny in Space’ which feature the airplane in this story). This time around, it was a craving for deep dish pizza, and a desire to fly into Chicago’s famous ‘Meigs Field’. This airport was immortalized by the early versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator. Unfortunately, in October of that year the great aviation party pooper, Chicago Mayor Richard M Daley had ordered the field shut down… That left us with two options of landing in downtown Chicago: O’Hare and Midway. A college friend (who was also a licensed pilot) and I approached our instructor about how to plan this. He almost immediately scrapped our O’Hare idea. There was a way of doing it, but realistically a little Piper Cherokee had no business delaying 747s at one of the world’s busiest International airports. That left us with Chicago Midway. Still a super busy field, but one that was more suited to handling general aviation traffic in between airline jets.

This was going to be the longest flight either of us had done, and would be quite expensive. Being private pilots now, we could make use of the FAA provision where ‘passengers’ could share in the cost of the flight. Two of our college friends were coming along for the ride. One would fly with us from Newark-Heath to Chicago. The other one we’d pick up at Smith Field in Ft Wayne, Indiana where we would drop her back off again in the evening. We were both eager to get some flying done. My pilot friend wanted to do the outbound leg and land at Midway. I’d be flying the return leg including the inevitable night flying. The morning temperature at our departure field was very crisp indeed, with snow and ice on the ground. After takeoff, we climbed to our cruising altitude. When flying under Visual Flight Rules, this altitude is determined by your flight direction. If you fly between 0 and 179° on your compass, you fly at ‘odd’ thousands + 500ft. Between 180-359°, you fly ‘even’ thousands + 500ft. This provides a solid 1000ft separation between opposing air traffic. Our instructor had recommended 6500 as a good altitude. Because of the thinner air we could run the engine on a leaner fuel mixture, and save a bit of money. This was new territory. My pilot friend had gone to 10000ft once in a Cessna with an instructor, but neither of us had gone above 3000ft while flying as pilot in command…

Everything went well as we climbed through 4000ft. The winter landscape below looked spectacular. Then quite suddenly, the Piper’s engine began running rough… My pilot friend and I looked at each other. I don’t think either of us had ever experienced ‘actual’ engine trouble before and our emergency training had been simulated, with the motor at idle…not making dodgy noises. My first thought was to try turning the carburetor heat on. I reached over and put my hand on the control, ready to pull it. Then I thought about it. It was theoretically possible for carburetor ice to form during a climb, but that seemed unlikely. It was so cold outside that any air going into the engine would be bone dry. At that moment I think our collective light bulb went off. Duh!, if we were going to save money on fuel, we really should lean that fuel mixture, which was now threatening to drown our cylinders! This had to be done manually by pulling the bright red knob on my side of the control panel. Our aircraft was a relative old timer, having first flown in 1965 and had a decidedly ‘Old School’ feel to it. As the mixture got adjusted for our climb, the engine started to act like its old self again and we proceeded to Smith Field. I didn’t realize it then, but that initial thought of turning the carb heat on would end up giving me flashbacks for years to come.

A good hour later my pilot friend landed the Piper at Ft Wayne where we picked up our second 'passenger'. Take off this time was extra exciting, as we knew we were heading into some of the busiest airspace in the World. We climbed back up to 6500ft, this time remembering to lean the fuel mixture as we climbed. I noticed that the fuel gage on our left tank was reading lower than expected. The Piper has a separate fuel tank in each wing, and throughout the flight it is customary to switch between the two. The switch was on the ‘captain’ side of the cockpit and I asked my pilot friend to go ahead and switch it to the other side. We also changed maps at that point. This was once again something new. Prior to this, our flying had been limited to the airspace of the ‘Detroit’ sectional chart. It was now time to switch to ‘Chicago’. There were also noticeably more other aircraft around us. As a twin engine Piper Seneca passed underneath us, the need for that 1000ft vertical separation became reality, rather than a concept in a textbook.

About 20 miles south east of Midway airport we contacted approach control. We were radar vectored in between a steady stream of 737s and cleared to land on runway 22 Left. My pilot friend made a very smooth touch down. Out of the two of us, he undoubtedly was the one with the more natural flying skills. He had recently nailed a night carrier landing on a US NAVY simulator… After landing we taxied to the South ramp where we parked at one of the general aviation operators based there. Before engine shutdown, I took another look at the fuel gages. The right hand tank seemed to be reading lower than expected as well. We decided we’d probably gotten a bit more of a headwind than expected. Our friend who had flown with us from Ohio said goodbye and was picked up by a friend. The remainder of us caught the airport shuttle to the nearest train station and went into the city. Somewhere downtown, was a fresh baked Chicago deep dish pizza with our name on it!  We had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon in the Windy City.

We arrived back at Midway around 4pm to make final preparations for our return, which I would be flying. Most of the flying would be at night, which requires some extra precautions. In the dark, you cannot simply rely on outside cues to determine the attitude of the aircraft. Your mind plays tricks with you and it is very easy to get disoriented. The aircraft could be turning itself upside down while your mind is convinced it is flying straight and level. This phenomenon undoubtedly contributed to the death of JFK Jr. three years later during a night approach to Martha’s Vineyard. Night flying, as our instructor had hammered into our skulls, was ‘instrument flying’ and a lot of things needed monitoring. I was very happy to have another pilot on board to share the workload. We obtained a weather briefing for our route which looked fine. Clear skies but very windy. In case there was a strong cross wind, we would divert to Ft Wayne International Airport which had a bigger and wider runway. No sense in risking a difficult landing at night. As our fuel burn had been higher than expected, I did my calculations again. We followed the Instrument Flight Rules on these to be conservative. This meant having enough on board to fly to your destination, divert to your alternate, and then fly another 45 minutes on top of that. What we had on board should have been more than adequate but I had an extra seven gallons put in anyway…just in case. We then filed our flight plan, got our departure clearance and headed back to Indiana.

Now heading eastbound, we climbed to 5500ft and it looked like it should be another smooth flight. About 45 minutes into it though, my pilot friend who was monitoring the fuel gages said they were looking way too low again. If anything, we were now burning fuel even faster than before! I switched fuel tanks to the other side, but that didn’t seem to make a difference. We were getting slightly worried now. Could there be a fuel leak? We discussed it but decided that was unlikely. We had done thorough pre-flight inspections before every flight that day and noticed nothing out of the ordinary. There were no fluid spills, suspicious stains, or odd smells around the airplane. Could I have cocked up my fuel calculations?...visions of being nagged at by my high school math teacher entered my head.

We continued our flight and as we got closer to our destination things got even more worrisome. We were consuming fuel at a truly alarming rate, and our gages were nearly on empty. We were 15 nautical miles away from our destination and getting stressed. What the hell was going on here? We had descended to 3000ft and needed to locate an airport, and fast. My pilot friend contacted approach control at Ft Wayne International (our diversion airport) and advised them of our fuel situation. We had the option of being radar vectored (followed and directed by air traffic control on their radar screen) to their airport, or they could direct us to Smith field which was at least 10 miles closer. I decided on Smith because our fuel gages now both read zero…

We were instructed to descend to 2000ft which is the normal approach altitude for Smith Field. According to approach control the field was dead ahead on our 12 o’clock position, but we were having difficulty spotting it in the dark. There it was! The green and white beacon that marked the airport. I could also see the lights for runway 5/23. My pilot friend reported to Ft Wayne approach that we had the ‘field in sight’ and would be switching over to the local radio frequency. This was to let any aircraft in the vicinity know that we were inbound. Now things really started to get pear shaped and happened very fast from there on out… I needed to get this damned thing on the ground! This wind is strong though… And damn! It’s blowing across the runway… this was exactly the sort of thing we should divert for, but that was irrelevant now. Ironically, Smith field had another runway that would have been perfect for this wind direction, but it had no lights and was only available for daytime use... I overflew the airport and made a steep left turn to get lined up with runway 5 as my pilot friend did the landing checklist. My palms were sweating. We could run out of fuel any second.

I completed the turn. Damn!! The crosswind had blown me right off course, and CRAP!!…I was several hundred feet too high as well. I’d have to side slip it to get her lined up, and forward slip it to get her down. I banked the plane to the left and added right rudder to point the nose forward. Slowly our approach path corrected. Then we were over the runway, still too high and going about 10 knots too fast… Full flaps!! You don’t generally use full flaps in a crosswind because you can lose control of the aircraft. But there was no other option. This is where you normally slam the throttle in, and fly off for another go at the approach… And at that very moment of thought, the voices in my head started chattering. On one side, my ‘inner neurotypical’ was screaming “GO AROUND YOU DONKEY!!!”. On the other side was my more dominant ‘inner Spock’, calmly saying something along the lines of: “Captain, with the amount of fuel you have left that would be illogical”.

I’m rather fond of my logic… Throttle to idle!…ah poop it’s already at idle!! Had I idled it any harder, the knob would have come off the console. Turn the engine off!...nah don’t bother…it’ll quit on its own soon anyway… Nose down! Correct to the left! Uh oh…the end of that runway is creeping up. Left bank!, right rudder!!…a whooshing sound… BANG!!! With a jolt we hit the ground… Brakes!!! I slammed them hard. My pilot friend would have done the same if he could have, but unfortunately the Piper Cherokee only has brake pedals for the captain… Off to the left we veered, straight toward the runway lights! Crap! Right rudder! And off to the right we went…toward the other runway lights. Hmm…how many of those did my insurance say they would cover?… When we finally came grinding to a halt we had less than 20ft of runway left in front of us. What the camel crap had just happened?...

We sat at the end of the runway for at least a minute, regaining our breath. Slowly I released the foot brakes, and added some power to get us taxiing. Neither of us said much. We were both pretty shaken by the whole experience. I’m not sure if our friend in the back seat knew anything bad was going on until my roller coaster landing. It was only a short taxi to the ramp where the operations building was still open. I brought it to a stop by the fuel pumps and we completed the shutdown checklist. Despite all odds the engine was still running. As I emerged from the cockpit drenched in sweat, a ramp worker walked up to us and wished us a good evening. If I remember correctly, the only word out of my mouth was ‘fuel’. I was at this point still completely convinced that I had made a mistake with my fuel planning and my confidence had taken a major beating. Had my atrocious arithmetic nearly killed two of my friends? For a sneaking moment, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this anymore. My pilot friend asked if I needed him to fly the leg to Newark-Heath. I considered his kind offer for a moment and then changed my mind. I had! to fly the last leg. If I didn’t fly again right the hell now, I knew for myself I would probably never get behind the controls of another airplane again.

The ramp worker gave us a concerned look when he presented us with our fuel bill. ‘You guys were cutting it close’, he said. ‘Both your tanks were dry to the touch…’ After settling up and exchanging a few concerned looks of our own, we reluctantly got on board again and ran through our departure checklists. I was still fully alert on adrenalin, and determined to take control of this little machine for the flight home. Take off went without incident and the engine ran smoothly. But…again…there was that fuel burn. It was way too fast. We had anticipated it this time and had more fuel on board than we would have ever needed for a flight of that length. We discussed it and agreed we would write a ‘Squawk’ note in the airplane’s flight log. We would also call the flight line manager to explain what had happened. Landing at Newark-Heath happened without further incident. The next thing for my pilot friend and I were our final exams of the semester. After that, I flew home to Singapore for Christmas break where I had a solid three weeks to contemplate the future of my flying career.

After returning to Ohio in January of ‘97, I bumped into my pilot friend in front of the student union building. He needed to talk to me, and from the look on his face it was something serious… He’d gotten a call back from our instructor just before Christmas. Contrary to what we had thought, there had been a problem with the aircraft after all. A very serious problem. According to the mechanic we’d basically had a 99% chance of blowing up… A section of the fuel system had ruptured, and only part of our fuel was being pumped into the engine. The rest was being vaporized under the engine cowling in a fine, highly explosive mist. That had quite obviously caused our ridiculous rate of fuel consumption. My calculations had been correct after all… For me, the biggest shocker came at dinner that night. It came in the form of a realization which was to become a common flashback. On our first leg when our engine had started to run rough I had almost activated the carburetor heat. My hand had actually been holding the control knob. Had I pulled it, (and not the fuel mixture lever), a movable flap would have directed air from the ‘heat stove’ (on the exhaust pipe) right through the carburetor which was by then completely surrounded by fuel vapor. That baking hot air would have very likely caused a massive explosion, and that really would have been it.

Something else was nagging at me as well. During the course of my training, I had watched a King Schools instruction video where an anonymous quote was featured:

 “Superior pilots use their superior judgment to avoid situations requiring the use of their superior skills”.

Yes, I had managed to get the Piper safely on the ground, with a fuel leak, at night, and in a crosswind. But had it really been necessary for us to get into that ‘chain of events’, where a series of subtle failures comes together to nearly cause a crash? From the beginning of the day there had been suspicious fuel readings. I assumed it had been bad math on my part. But when you’re methodical about flight planning, especially with two qualified pilots crunching all the data, there is a certain redundancy that catches most mistakes. Our instructor was pretty philosophical about it. Some years prior he had similarly almost blown up, when a Beech King Air he was flying began coughing up jet fuel in mid-flight. Yes there were clues but the way you learn their significance, is through experience. Of this, we’d now had our first healthy dose and were still alive to talk about it.

As for the Piper (9W), she was successfully repaired and put back into service. I've had many adventures in that airplane. I flew ‘zero G’ parabolas in her, and used her to fly to McDonald’s at Port Columbus International. That night was the last time I ever flew her. For some reason it just worked out that whenever I flew after that, it was in one of the school’s Cessnas. Sometimes I miss that little blue and white airplane. For a little nostalgia I looked her up on She’s still going strong for an operator in Georgia, 48 years after she first flew.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Adventures in flying Pt 1: “Tarantulas on a Plane".

In the fall of 1995, my junior year at Denison University, that lifelong fascination with snakes had expanded its long nose into an obsession with spiders…the big hairy kind. My curiosity started a few summers earlier in Belgium when I visited an exhibition on tarantulas. This was the day I faced my fears, because up until that very moment I was absolutely terrified of spiders. Within minutes of entering the exhibition hall though, my fear turned into fascination. What my mind had previously perceived as black hairy monsters, revealed itself as a true kaleidoscope of diversity. For the first time I saw the psychedelic colors of the Antilles Pinktoe (Avicularia versicolor), with its bright red backsite, metallic green head and metallic purple legs. The lemon yellow highlights on the legs of the Sri Lankan Ornamental Tarantula (Poecilotheria fasciata), and the mesmerizing blue sheen of the spectacularly aggressive Cobalt Blue Tarantula (Haplopelma lividus). The list goes on. If I were you I would plug these names into Google and take a look for yourself. By the end of the afternoon, I went from being a complete arachnophobe, to having let one walk on my hands.

This particular adventure was set in motion a year later when I had purchased around 30 spiders from the exhibitor in Belgium with whom I had become friends. I kept them in my University dorm room (other students religiously avoided my corner of that building). He gave me the contact info of his buddy Jim in Cincinnati, Ohio who had a collection that numbered in the thousands. Jim would very likely be interested in trying some captive breeding between his specimens and mine. Why captive breed these beasts? Firstly, it’s pretty easy with a high survival rate of spiderlings. It allows more species to be introduced into the hobby while reducing the need for wild caught spiders. Second, habitat destruction has caused many species to become critically endangered in the wild. Captive breeding could at least ensure survival of the species.

Back in the States, this spider sightseeing trip looked all nice and exciting in theory, but I had one problem…no car. I felt bad enough about begging people for rides to the local mall, and wasn’t about to ask for a ride down to Cincinnati. Doing the 130 mile trip on my rusty bicycle with a bag of spiders on my back in one weekend would be fitness overkill. Not wanting to miss out on this opportunity though, I did some thinking and it soon dawned on me that with a bit of ‘schmoozing’, I probably had an airplane at my disposal… I was in the process of getting my Private Pilot’s License, and needed to do a number of longer flights to complete the FAA’s ‘cross country’ portion of my training. Why not do one of them to Cincinnati Lunken Field (a stone’s throw from Jim’s house) and let the spiders tag along for the ride? As a student pilot I wasn’t technically allowed to carry passengers, but I couldn’t find anything in the Federal Aviation Regulation about arachnids being ‘legally classifiable as passengers’ so figured it would probably be ok.

Two Saturdays later, after much flight planning and route plotting, I departed Newark-Heath airport. My flight bag full of spiders was buckled into the seat next to me. It was a very pleasant day for flying with minimal turbulence. After take-off, I opened up the bag to let fresh air in. The cockpit of a Cessna-152 can get pretty hot on a sunny day, and that heat can quickly kill anything that’s in a small enclosure. My route took me over the city of Wilmington where permission was granted to overfly Airborne Airpark. From my Cessna I could see a DC-8 on the runway that had just landed. It felt pretty amazing to have the privilege of operating a real aircraft through controlled airspace. This was no simulation courtesy of Microsoft. The approach over the hills of southeastern Ohio was spectacular, many of the trees having already taken on the red and copper pastel colors that are so typical of a Midwestern autumn. I got some great views of the Ohio River, and after being vectored low over a neighborhood in the hills, I was cleared to land on Runway 25.

After landing, I was quickly overcome by a ‘kid in a candy store’ feeling and was probably high as a kite on endorphins. I’d just gotten to do a pretty cool bit of flying, and was about to see a world class tarantula collection. As I taxied to the corporate ramp, looking past the perimeter fence, I could already see Jim waiting for me with his van. My focus should have really remained with the airplane but I was too excited. I made a rookie error as a result, and forgot to complete the aircraft shutdown checklist… This oversight was to come bite me in the butt later that day.

Jim treated me to lunch after which we drove over to his house. His basement which would have been the stuff of nightmares for most, was like a temple for me. There were thousands of containers, neatly organized, containing an unbelievable assortment of exotic spiders. There were larger enclosures as well that had previously contained venomous snakes and crocodilians. He had traded those in order to make more room for the spiders. He was in the process of creating a comprehensive encyclopedia of tarantulas which he wanted to publish.

I showed him what I had with me, including two sub-adults of a newly discovered species. These were very likely the first two Tapinauchenius elenae spiders imported into the United States. The pride and joy in my collection was a dinner plate size Cameroon red baboon spider (Hysterocrates gigas). This species has a rather aggressive reputation, but mine was surprisingly calm. Granted, its half inch long fangs put me off from ever seriously thinking about handling her… He showed me more Avicularia species as well as a shelf full of Lasiodoras and Theraphosas, the largest spiders on Earth. He had at least one of every species I had ever read about in the literature. He had suitable ‘mates’ for most of my spiders, and I ended up leaving most of my animals in his care. It really is true that time flies when you're having fun.

A most educational day behind me, it was time to return to Newark and Jim dropped me back off at the airport. I filed a flight plan and walked out onto the ramp to the Cessna. As soon as I opened the door though, I heard the whining of gyros and knew something wasn’t quite right. In my over excited haste, I’d left the Cessna’s ‘Master’ switch on. The electrically operated flight instruments had been draining the battery for most of the day. As a result, the charge was so low that I was unable to get the engine started. Time for an embarrassing phone call to the flight school… I got a well-deserved, though surprisingly kind lecture from my instructor about how ‘them darn checklists’ are there for a reason. His advice was to see if a mechanic could hand-crank the propeller for me, let the engine charge the battery up, and then fly home. Now hand-cranking an airplane is a ridiculously dangerous procedure. It is the WW1 way of starting an airplane (before electric starter motors were available) and involves using your full body weight to swing the propeller around. If you lose your balance, you fall right into it… and that leads to all sorts of unpleasant paperwork.

After a fair amount begging from me, and head shaking from more experienced pilots, an adventurous mechanic agreed to give it a go. The engine started up after about 20 minutes of hand propping, and I ran it for about an hour to re-charge the battery. Once I got a 'good' indication I shut the engine down. By this time it was getting dark, and the FAA rules on student pilots flying at night were crystal clear: Don’t! Time for another embarrassing call down to Newark to let them know they wouldn’t have their plane back until the following day. Then came the question of sleeping arrangements. I didn’t want to impose on Jim for a place to crash as I’d only just met him in person for the first time. Fortunately for me, the staff at Lunken were very supportive, and they put their crew facilities (including the snooze room) at my disposal.
The following morning I was up pretty early, eager to be on my way. As soon as I started to load up my airplane though, one of the ramp staff walked up to me and said there was ice on top of my wings. It is probable that I would have noticed the ice myself during the pre-flight procedure, but I was grateful he pointed it out to me…just in case (he probably heard how good I was at following check lists). Trying to take off with ice on the wings tends to lead to more of those annoying forms to fill out. The easiest way to get rid of it was to let the sun melt it off.  So I took the guy’s advice, had some breakfast and watched jets take off. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday morning either.

Around 10am, my remaining spiders and I finally got the all clear and flew back to Newark. I had seen the most insane collection of tarantulas, and had learned the hard way how important following procedures is to a pilot. I met up with Jim again later that year at a reptile show in Columbus Ohio. I bought more spiders, bringing my collection to a total of 85 and thoroughly ruining my chances of a date for the next two years. My Cameroon red stayed with him for the rest of its days. Hysterocrates species were found to have a particularly nasty venom, and Denison’s entomology professor had politely requested I please keep it off campus. He didn’t want any annoying forms to fill out either… I haven’t kept any spiders in a while now. Being a busy single father, keeping exotic pets is on hold. I am hopeful though that at some point in the future I can admire their beauty again from the comfort of my living room. I will never forget the enthusiasm shared by Jim, and his passionate support for my interest in them. He sadly passed away last August. Thanks for some incredible memories mate!

(FYI: All my spiders that were not locally bought, were legally imported into the United States with the correct paperwork, and inspected by US Fish & Wildlife at Washington Dulles Airport in August of 1995)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ladakh 1991 - Boy Meets Himalayas

The following is a chapter from the book:

One weekend in early 1991, I was watching a documentary on TV about a group from Singapore who were trekking in Nepal to the base camp of Mt Everest. The organizer of the expedition was Bill Kite, a transplanted American who ran a company called Sagarmatha Trekking in Kathmandu. I was mesmerized, and was thinking about how cool it would be to go trekking with this guy. I didn’t have to wait for long. Within weeks, there was mention in morning assembly at school about an upcoming expedition to Ladakh in northwestern India. It would be organized by Bill, and Mr. Gibby. The thing that really caught my imagination was that the trek would take us right past a small (6000+m) Himalayan peak which, time and weather allowing, we would have the option of climbing. ‘Small’ is a relative term in the world of Himalayan climbing. Your base camp is usually located at altitudes that are higher than the summit! of anything located in the 48 contiguous US states, or in the European Alps.

When I climbed Kinabalu, I’d sworn I’d never set foot on another mountain… So, naturally I started reading all I could find about it. I also rediscovered my dad’s copy of Chris Bonington’s ‘Annapurna South Face’, after checking out ‘Everest the Hard Way’ from our school library. My favorite book by far though, was an old book called ‘On Ice and Snow and Rock’, by Frenchman Gaston Rebuffat. This one cost me a fortune in library late fees over the years, as I just didn’t want to give it back. It talked about all the climbing basics, such as balance and proper hand holds. I spent many hours reading it in the comfort of my bedroom while I should have been doing homework. In my mind, I was making epic ascents up the North faces of the Matterhorn and Eiger in raging snowstorms. I romanticized about a spot on the Eiger known as the ‘Death Bivouac’, completely ignorant of the fact that it has that name for a good reason… This trip to the Northwestern part of the Himalaya, was the opportunity I needed to put all this ‘armchair mountaineering’ into practice.

Ladakh is situated in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. It is located near the Ceasefire Line/Line of Control, which marks the border of a long standing territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. Passions ran quite high, and there were occasional kidnaps of westerners. Most of those incidents took place in or around Shrinagar. Since we were separated from it by a huge mountain range, Ladakh was considered quite safe. Geographically, it is part of the Tibetan Plateau and Tibetan Buddhism is thoroughly engrained in the local culture. Numerous monasteries, or ‘Gompas’ such as Spituk and Hemis, are found throughout the area. Our trek took place within Hemis National Park, the largest such park in South Asia. The landscape is rugged and is often described as moon like. During the summer months the climate is very dry, and relatively warm. During the brutal winter months, temperatures can drop to 40 degrees below zero. In this ruggedness, a population of around 200 snow leopards thrives. These are breathtaking but highly secretive creatures that rarely allow themselves to be seen.

Our trip took place less than six months before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In those days, you could save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on airfare if you flew an ‘Eastern Block’ carrier. As it happened, we flew from Singapore to Delhi on good old Aeroflot Soviet Airlines… Our aircraft was an Ilyushin 86. Many jokes were made about its potential safety, and about the tray tables being made wood. There was the fat male flight attendant who refused to let passengers say no to their inflight meal, because Aeroflot was a ‘civilized airline’. Or the thick white fog that filled the cabin on takeoff, as its underpowered engines struggled to get that big bird in the air. The fact remains, that in its entire operational history, an Ilyushin 86 has never killed a passenger… It was, despite all of its perceived shortcomings, a damned safe airplane to fly on. If our flight to Delhi was entertaining, it was nothing compared to the spectacle that awaited us the following day.

After a few hours rest at a hotel in Delhi, we returned to the airport for a 4am check in and security check for our flight to Leh. Departure was scheduled for 6. Flights to Leh leave very early. Reason being once the air masses over the Himalayas start heating up with the morning sun, the air becomes very turbulent. So turbulent in fact, that it is not safe to fly in. Leh airport is at an altitude of over 3,000m, making it one of the highest airports in the World. At that altitude a jet has to have both a very high takeoff speed as well as landing speed in order for the wings to provide lift. The runway slopes up at an angle. Takeoff is downhill to help gain speed. Landing is uphill to help the plane stop. About 45 minutes after departing Delhi, the Himalayas came into view and it was one of those sights that you have to see to believe. Officially, photography was prohibited, but I ignored that rule, too gobsmacked to care. The flight attendants didn’t seem to notice anyway.  I was able to identify two mountains. K2 in the distance, and surprisingly Nanga Parbat, which we appeared to be very close to indeed… I got a clear view of a feature known as the ‘Silver Saddle’, and in my mind could picture the lone figure of Hermann Buhl slowly making his way to the summit back in 1953, in what was one of the great climbs in history.

After a series of creative maneuvers and steep turns, dodging sheer mountain faces, we came in for landing at a speed which makes Formula One cars jealous with envy. Bill had joked that the pilots would start throwing out anchors out the cockpit windows. It seemed then, that he might have been only half joking. During the descent, I had felt a slight sting on my left wrist. After we’d landed I realized that the case of my watch (one of those 1980’s ‘Swatch’ waterproof watches) had burst due to the pressure difference. There was also a ringing in my ears. All that, together with the general sensation that my head was indeed hollow, told me that we were now pretty high up. The strange sensation intensified, and after about twenty minutes I felt ‘buzzed’, not unlike being slightly tipsy. Of course, at age sixteen I knew absolutely nothing at all about being drunk… Toward the evening the headache set in, and we’d been told to expect it. We were having mild symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). It is completely normal when you go from near sea level to over 10,000ft in just over an hour. The only thing you can do about it is rest, and wait for your body to acclimatize. For the next few days we did a little sightseeing around Leh and hung out at the guest house.

At the start of our trek we took a group photo on the banks of the Indus. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and the views spectacular. As we made our way toward the Ganda La pass, the 6000m silhouette of the mountain Stok Kangri towered over us. Once across the Ganda La, we entered the gorge through which the Markha river flows. The source of this river was Kang Yatse. This was the 6,400m / 21,000ft mountain that I was absolutely determined to climb to at least part of the way up. To be quite honest, at the beginning of the trip it looked sort of unlikely that I would be capable of doing that. Thanks in part due to exam stress (having just sat for my GCSEs) I had for the previous months been gorging myself on huge amounts of late night snacks… Throughout most of the trek, I was walking at the back of the group and felt very embarrassed about it. I had all this nerdy knowledge about climbing techniques, but was not that confident about being able to put them into practice. Fortunately though, I got a bit of help on the way. With us was Patrick, an experienced American trekking guide. He’s the sort of easygoing chap you just cannot help taking an instant liking to. I had told him from the start that I wanted to get to 6000 meters. He knew that I was determined to get up there and he’d been sharing his knowledge. He taught me the basics of ‘pressure breathing’. In this technique, you focus on pushing the air out of your lungs. Your breathing reflex fills them back up automatically. This way, you get rid of the most CO2 and take up oxygen most efficiently. The second thing he taught me was to keep my steps small. Much smaller in fact than I would normally want to make them. It conserves energy, and even though it appears to slow you down, you can keep going for much longer periods of time. This really becomes important when you’re climbing a high mountain, because getting to the summit is only half of the equation. A lot of mountain deaths occur because climbers spent all their energy getting to the summit, and then just ‘sit down’ for a permanent rest on the way down.

We hiked past spectacular rock formations. Lhawang, one of our other trekking guides took out his rock climbing boots during rest stops for bouldering practice. Occasionally we’d come across shepherds and their flock of goats going up and down the trail. Our baggage was carried on the back of ponies instead of the traditional porters you see in Nepal. Every morning around 7am, we were woken in our tents with cups of hot tea. Keeping hydrated is really important at high altitudes. In these conditions you will lose up to two liters of fluid just by breathing in and out. When the body produces more red blood cells, your blood thickens. It will start to take on the consistency of maple syrup. At lower altitudes the reduced circulation makes you cold. When you get really high up, this is one of the bigger danger factors for getting frostbite.  All of us carried chlorine tablets which enabled us to use river water for drinking. It would taste like drinking out of a swimming pool, but it wouldn’t kill you. Being high up, the difference in temperature between sun and shade was pretty large. In the sunny parts it was quite hot, and a T-shirt would suffice. In the shady spots, it was time for a sweater and a jacket. Layering was the way to go. Having several t-shirts at hand you could just take off and put on as needed. It was the same with the wind. If it was sunny and calm, it was hot and sweaty. But a stiff breeze could cool you down within seconds.

This trek was also a big exercise in not complaining. I was wearing brand new Dolomite trekking shoes, and I had perhaps not taken enough time to break them in. Needless to say I started to develop blisters on my feet and they rapidly got worse and worse. My left pinky toe, by day three was a pocket of fluid that was held together by the nail. My heels on both feet were huge blisters. To be honest it hurt like hell, but I sort of breathed through it. I was captivated by the sights, as well as by the sheer ‘in the moment’ realization that I was actually hiking in the Himalayas.  We were approaching a 6400m mountain that I’d get the chance to go climb on. I was advised to cool my feet as much as possible. At every rest stop that was close to the river bank, I’d take off my shoes and socks and submerge my feet in the icy cold water. After about 10 seconds they were completely numb and the pain was gone for about a half hour while I read a bit. This worked quite well and the pain relief was good. I patched up my feet with anti blister gadgets known as Compeed Second Skin and they worked like magic. After a week, large areas of my feet were completely covered in those. The whole thing didn’t smell too good, but they did their job. The blisters eventually dried out and stopped hurting.

I kept to the back of the pack during most of the trek, slowed down by the blisters, and attempting to pace myself. After experiencing the stunning sight of the ancient ruins of Hankar Palace sitting precariously on the edge of a steep cliff, we got our first glimpse of Kang Yatse. The forepeak which we would climb on consisted of mostly gentle scree slopes, topped off with a nice snow cap. From here on out, the trekking became steeper and more arduous. There huge boulders to cross and it took some concentration not fall off.  Our overnight stop at Tachungtse was only a few hours from base camp. The following day would get us there quite early. This was probably when I’d get the most likely chance to climb as high as I could. Taking Patrick’s advice, I conserved my energy and drank as much water as I could. I ate like a pig at dinner, and stuffed myself with wine gums and probably half a bag of Cadbury’s Garfield chocolates. My backpack, which was more of a candy pantry, was well stocked.

That night, the excitement of what lay ahead in the morning made sleeping very difficult. I figured reading my book was more rewarding than tossing and turning around all night. This would also just annoy my tent mate. So I put on my parka and sat down with my back against a boulder outside. I was now reading Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris with the aid of the World’s biggest reading lamp. At 5000m, away from civilization and the light pollution it brings, the Milky Way  galaxy is bright enough to read a book by.. I read for several hours,  in the company of a flask of cold tea and more chocolate. The most surreal thing was that every so often a bright point of light would fly by overhead. It suddenly hit me that those were not airplanes but satellites. This was one of the single most memorable nights of my life…

The next day’s trek was indeed short. Still, I conserved my energy for what was hopefully to come later that morning. The whole effect was rather comical as I must have looked somewhat like a cat stalking its prey. After arriving at base camp I took a look through the basic climbing gear that had come along. This consisted mostly of a few ice axes. I grabbed an old 1950's wooden axe, just because it looked the coolest and most ‘classic’ of the lot. As soon as my tent was pitched, I got a day sack of snacks & my parka together. Then I went to find Patrick who had done the same. We took one look at each other and said ‘Let’s go’…

A few teachers went up as well, on a slightly different route with our third trekking guide, Jangbu Sherpa. Jangbu is a very capable climber and in May of 2011 he summited Everest. We set off on the slope, taking tiny steps, conserving our forces. Climbing at even a modest altitude of 5,500m in the Himalayas is a surreal experience. In good, calm weather the effect is somewhat like being in a Salvador Dali painting, but in 3D with a most unusual, completely silent soundtrack. The lack of oxygen, combined with the exertion of climbing, means that you start to mildly hallucinate. My ice axe started encouraging me to keep going, and was apparently giving me directions. At one point Patrick and I became separated, and I started veering off to the right of the planned route. I soon found myself on a rather steep and tricky field of loose scree. It was physically easier climbing, though much riskier. When I got to the edge of the snow, I had to make a sharp left and climb steeply up to get back to the ridge. I did it carefully, and slowly. I’d been climbing for several hours, and it was encouraging to see that ridge get closer and closer. The summit of the forepeak was covered in snow. I didn’t have crampons to the snow line would be as high as I could go that day. I would not be able to reach the top, but I was determined to get as high as I could. 6000m was definitely within reach. I climbed for another hour or so when the scree slope started leveling off, and the other ‘main’ summit of Kang Yatse became visible on the other side. The next thing I remember seeing was Patrick with a wide grin on his face, and a rather flabbergasted looking teacher who I don’t think had expected to see me, Mr. slow poke up there on that ridge. But I was there. About another 100 vertical meters, 150 at most separated me from the summit of the fore peak which was at around 6200m. I wanted to go above 6000m and my goal had been attained. It didn’t matter to me at that point that I didn’t make the summit. Up there it was very peaceful and my senses were one with the mountain. I was completely in the moment and could see the appeal the Himalayas have to Buddhist monks. It made sense now, why they would build monasteries up on high cliffs. The whole experience was very meditative. And the only material goods that mattered at that moment, were the clothes that were keeping me warm.

Poetics set aside, it was now early afternoon and we still had to get back down. That night was likely to be another cold one. As we were pretty tired, everyone descended at their own pace. This was probably not the smartest of things to do, as that’s how you get lost. And that’s sort of exactly what I did. I lost track of Patrick, Jangbu and the teachers. It was a good lesson in situational awareness, and not panicking. I had to get back to camp while there was still light. The temperature was starting to drop as well. I was now a relatively wise 16 years of age, and the full weight of why the ‘Death Bivouac’ on the Eiger got its name started to become clear. Granted, the north face of the Eiger is a near vertical wall and Kang Yatse is completely non-technical. However, I was now at nearly twice the altitude of that miserable rock ledge in the Swiss Alps, and I didn’t fancy a night in the open without a tent.

So I took a look around. Directly in front of me, there was only one valley, and by logic it had to be the one that our base camp was in. I had veered off to the right of the normal descent route, so I figured if I found the safest way down into that valley, which was basically following the ridge, I could just hang a left in the valley and follow the stream down toward the camp. It worked. I got back to camp over an hour after the others did, and I was met by a lot of relieved faces. I was happy and winded. I was proud of having attained my goal, and took a rest in my tent, enjoying a cup of hot tea and another half bag of Cadbury’s Garfield. For me the next day would be a rest day. The teachers who went up with me set off again the next morning with full climbing gear. For them, the previous day’s climbing had been an acclimatization exercise. They summited easily and enjoyed the view of K2 from the top.

Our final day in base camp before trekking back toward Leh, I went for a walk with my former math teacher, Mr. Blythe. We explored the area around the glacier that emerges from the North face of the mountain. The terrain was spectacular, and we took some photographs. Since we were up high and there were no people (or too many animals to speak of) that could ‘do their business’ in the water, I decided to have a drink of the fresh glacial melt water that was flowing there. It was icy cold, but delicious. I think it’s still the best tasting water I ever drank. It had a very slight sweetness to it, comparable to the smoothness of Grey Goose vodka, minus the alcohol.

Our trek ended in the town of Hemis where we visited the 11th Century Buddhist Monastery. After a final day’s roaming around Leh and buying some souvenirs, we took an early morning flight back to Delhi. We had a flex day before we split up as a group. Some of us, including me would fly back to Singapore. Others would fly on to Moscow and from there to London. That extra day was well spent on a long bus drive to Agra where we toured the Taj Mahal. It was every bit as spectacular as it was on photos, probably more so. The inlay stone work of the tomb was supremely intricate, although the sweltering heat inside would compare favorably with the hottest Scandinavian sauna. At the end of our day, one of our teachers suggested getting a burger at the nearby Wimpy’s Restaurant. Throughout the trip, I’d been talking about paying a ‘major visit’ to Burger King for an overdose of junk food. This seemed like a good way to get a head start on that. The trek had done me good, and despite the wine gums and chocolate I’d lost nearly 20 pounds. That burger & fries though, was a huge mistake. Almost immediately I started feeling queezy, and by the time I made it back to the hotel I had a spectacular case of the runs. I made an attempt at forcing down some spaghetti carbonara at the hotel that evening, but I spent most of that night running between my bed and the bathroom.

The following mornings came the goodbyes. Most of my expedition mates I would see again in the fall for the start of term. Some were leaving for good.  Ian, a cousin of one of my classmates I really would never see again. I was briefly in touch with him through Facebook, but he passed away last year after a long illness. It takes a while, sometimes years before you can talk about incredible experiences like this. The sheer amount of stuff you soak up can be rather overwhelming, even if it is all amazingly positive. Doubly so as a TCK, where after a trip you don’t go home, but simply fly to another foreign country that happens to be the one you live in. The concept of ‘home’ becomes rather complicated, and it completely changes your perception. What to most people is a once in a lifetime experience, becomes almost a way of life and it never ceases to be a rather odd thing. At the end of this trip, having reached my goal of climbing above 6000m, I was absolutely determined to continue climbing in the Himalayas. One of the teachers who summited that day told me: “Now all you need is experience”. It came the following winter, but my beginner’s luck was running out. My next expedition was very nearly my last.